Hexvessel - No Holier Temple [Svart Records - 2012]For discerning fans of occult-tinged music who want something somewhat softer, this second endeavor from Mat McNerney (aka Kvohst) and his septet of Finnish musicians called the Death Magicians is a spellbinding concoction of ‘70s psychedelia and ‘90s neofolk gloom. It investigates the spirits of the forest—the temple referenced in the title—with pagan aplomb, while extolling wilderness preservation and the worship of nature. And while McNerney is primarily known for his string of black metal projects in the UK and Norway, as Hexvessel he strives for something considerably more gorgeous and palatable, albeit strange, mystical, and occasionally dark.
Tracks primarily alternate between short succinct pieces where McNerney employs spoken word and sprechgesang in a manner akin to obvious influence Current 93, and epic melodic folk songs with some of the most powerful and loveliest singing that this genre has seen in some time. The longest and most full-bodied of these is “Unseen Sun,” a 13-minute psychedelic slow burn that unfolds at a leisurely, hypnotic pace before a driving rhythm kicks in. It is the artistic pinnacle of Hexvessel’s efforts thus far, especially superlative praise considering the wealth of great material found elsewhere on the album.
The alluring “Woods to Conjure,” for example, is simply a magnificent song, with multi-tracked choruses giving it accessible heft and an astonishing trumpet that solos its way through the trees like a guiding beacon. With ghostly background vocals and lyrics that seem to summon the darker spirits of the forest, it marks the first glimpse of Hexvessel’s pagan nucleus, cloaked in lush, wintery spookiness that only gets cozier as the album progresses. Leavening the mood a bit but continuing the forest theme, “A Letter in Birch Bark” is beautifully sung and delicately played, with music box instrumentation and a middle section boosted by accordion. The pagan themes peak with “Sacred Marriage,” a traditional folk ode to the harmony between green lords and spring maidens, corn kings and harvest queens, stone men and weaving women, and horned gods and moon goddesses. It is reminiscent of Sol Invictus with a far better singer.
The remaining moments of No Holier Temple find Hexvessel both experimenting further and playing back into former strengths. A hint of ugliness pervades “His Portal Tomb,” revealing an initially unwelcome trace of metal, especially in its progression and a series of Sabbath-like power chords. McNerney matches this with a higher register that recalls some of his proggier brethren from the ‘70s, like Jon Anderson from Yes. But before getting too dippy for its own good, the song thankfully falls back into a rolling chorus that is lively and warm. After employing the gentle backing vox of bandmember Marja, it ascends to anthemic heights with soaring, wordless vocals and scuzzy guitar, then starts all over again. Such longform songwriting mimics first generation King Crimson. “Are You Coniferous?” is both briefer and better, a weird and wonderful bit of old-world carnival whimsy with caterwauling vocals that nods to Pink Floyd.
The biggest misstep—and it’s a minor one—may be the cover of Ultimate Spinach’s “Your Head Is Reeling” tacked onto the end of the album. It sounds great, but its callback to 1968 unyieldingly ties it to that retro “H” word (think “summer of love”) when the rest of the album manages to transcend such a label.Richard T Williams